telling tragic stories

Went to a wedding last night, which was one of the best weddings I’ve ever been to! I think the main reason it was so good was because there were so many nice, interesting people there. Sitting on my table was this activist couple, who were involved in the peace movement, particularly to do with Palestine. They were great because they were normal, daggy people who ate chicken – they didn’t snob the work that I did, and were genuinely interested in my experiences in New Orleans.

As we shouted above the DJ during dinner, I had this feeling I’d seen the guy before. It was during the father of the bride’s speech that an image popped into my head of a scared kid in a too-tight private school uniform stepping over the banister of one of the stalls, high up over the audience, during a talk given by the then-Education Minister, David Kemp. He must have yelled something anti-Liberal Government out, but what I remember is how terrified he looked – partly, I suppose, because everybody was looking at him, and partly because it was really high up and I don’t think he had any idea how to get down.

I was also wearing a private-school uniform, and after the forum I remember running up to the guy to congratulate him on his fine act of resistance. Incidentally, he was a card-carrying member of the group Resistance, which is the youth-wing of the Socialist Alternative. We chatted for a while, and afterwards Mrs Maher told me to watch out of boys like that. I said, “Oh, Mrs Maher, you’re so conservative!” I think she was offended by that.

We verified that it was, indeed, the same courageous yet geeky guy, who, eight years later, had a full beard and was wearing a suit coupled with a large red and white cotton scarf from Palestine. He told me about being a human shield in Palestine early on in the conversation, and casually dropped in mentions of similar work in Iraq. He was no soft-lined hippy type, that was for sure. He had the air of somebody keen to impress; quick to lay claim to certain political causes and dangerous situations as a way of telling me what kind of guy he was.

I can’t judge, because the reason I was so keenly aware of his conversational motives was because I do the same thing myself. I say things to shock and to excite. I’ve noticed it particularly around the bushfire stuff. People ask, “You’re from Whittlesea – were you affected?” And the honest answer is ‘yes – I was and I am’. I know personally several people who have died, and others who have lost everything they own. The community I grew up in has been shaken to its core. In the direct aftermath, I found myself relating these things almost as a way of claiming a stake in the disaster. There’s some kind of kudos that comes with direct association with any large tragedy, as terrible as that is. Yet at the same time, I really wanted the people around me to know I was affected. I guess you could say there were some mixed motives in there.

We decided to kick on to a bar, and as we left the reception venue my newfound friend mentioned, with slightly alarming nonchalance, how he’d come across a dead man in Palestine who had drowned as a result of flood waters rising in an unnatural way against the Apartheid Wall. His tone was all too familiar. He is seriously disturbed, and perhaps has never really found a way to process or express his grief. He is seeking political kudos in his shocking story…but maybe this is his way of making sense of the incident.

Perhaps by shocking or impressing, we are reinforcing to ourselves that this thing is a big deal. The thing that the man at the wedding and I have in common is that we were both a number of steps removed from the incident. It’s actually really hard to process traumatic stuff when you’re not directly involved, because your energy goes into feeling empathy for those more directly affected. So we spend a lot of time telling people how full on the incident was, as a way of dealing was a whole lot of repressed emotions.

I really liked the guy. He annoyed me as well. I can see now that my annoyance was really irritation at myself, for doing exactly the same thing.